Gender Theory in Schools – Two Things the TERFs Get Right (Plus Two Things They Get Wrong)
Another dispatch from our undercover teacher correspondent
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing teachers and parents of schoolchildren caught up in the ongoing transgender social contagion that is an open secret visible to all teachers and parents in certain Blue enclaves, for a long feature I’ll be producing in the nearish future. I spoke to multiple parents who reported that between 20 percent and 50 percent all the girls in their children’s middle or high school classrooms identify as trans or non-binary. I’ve found that every state, municipality, district, and individual school is its own distinctive gender ecosystem with its own unique way of manifesting and dealing with the contagion — for instance, 21 states have policies requiring teachers to assign new names and pronouns to trans-identifying students without parental notice or consent — but that the new gender doctrines, which spread through online communities and influencers, and increasingly through formal instruction within the schools themselves, are omnipresent in the lives of virtually all young people, exerting a variable degree of influence, but leaving few who attend public or secular public schools wholly untouched.
The following field report on How Gender is Being Lived in American Schools today is written by someone whose identity I have confirmed, who teaches in a Blue enclave somewhere in America, and who is indeed by all appearances the very epitome of an SJW soyboy in his appearance, mannerism, dress, and manner of speech — who just so happens to have secretly gone TERF, largely on male feminist grounds. The author, who tweets here, is also the author of a prior dispatch from the frontlines of the American educational system, and provides some much needed on-the-ground texture of what every teacher knows about what’s happening in our schools.
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By Moonlit Piglet
The last few weeks of August are always an absolute nightmare for public school teachers. Designing new curriculum, tracking down supplies, dealing with parents, and trudging through interminable DEI sessions is enough to fill up any person’s schedule – there really isn’t much time left over to eat real food or maintain personal hygiene, much less to involve yourself in increasingly unhinged debates over gender theory in the classroom. But involve myself I must, because this year’s round of discourse is getting weird.
This war between the TERFs and the woke has been waging for a while now, and there have always been some weird views on both sides. But the recent explosion of conservative interest has dramatically increased the number of hot takes I’m seeing online, mostly coming from people (on both sides) who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years – except, perhaps, in the background of some maniac’s TikTok. That doesn’t mean they’re all wrong, of course, but it does mean they’re getting everything second-hand. So that’s where I come in: I’m a public high school teacher, yes, but I was also an early adopter of wokeness in my own high school days, and I’m also a TERF today! That makes me a rare Identity Politics Triple Threat, and by the sovereign rules of online discourse, you’re at least sorta obligated to listen to my lived experience or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays.
Does that experience mean I have perfect insight into exactly what’s happening in every classroom in every school across the nation? Of course not. But it has given me a hefty bundle of anecdotes that don’t fit neatly into any one side’s set of talking points, and I think you should hear them. Plus, being a middle-class white guy, these are literally the only “speaking as a…” cards I ever get to play and I’ll be damned if I let an opportunity like this pass me by. So, here it goes: Two things the TERFs get right about gender theory in public schools, plus two things they get wrong.
(When I use the term “TERF,” I’m talking about those who criticize gender ideology from a secular, feminist perspective. I realize that some women find the term offensive and I get that. But there really isn’t a better label out there if you want to avoid conflating liberal critics with the explicit religious social conservatives who’ve stumbled into the same debate over the last few years. If you have your own preferred term for someone who thinks transgenderism is too sexist, as opposed to not sexist enough, then feel free to substitute that one in here.)
First off: Yes, it really is everywhere.
Last month, I wrote another piece for Wesley’s Substack where I talked about the biggest barrier to discussing DEI programs productively: If you’re honest about what’s going on, no one will believe you, because it just sounds too crazy to be true. I imagine the same problem is going to pop up here, but what else can I do? Like it or not, the TERFs are right about this one.
Here are some solid figures: I had six classes last year, and I didn’t have a single one without multiple students who identified as transgender. Some classes had more than others, but the absolutely lowest number was two in a 26-person class. Most of these students were just non-binary, but I had least five in the midst of actual medical transition, along with quite a few more who spent their days planning how to get the process started. I’d estimate that 70% or so of these students are female, and talk about breast binding and “top surgery” are common conversation topics at lunch time. It’s hard to not step in when you hear an obviously depressed, dysfunctional teenage girl working out how she can convince her parents to approve a double mastectomy, but what can you do? If I said anything at all, I’d be fired in a heartbeat.
These children’s identities, as you might expect, are wildly unstable; I can count a total of nineteen pronoun changes requested by twelve students over just the last semester, along with six for changing names. It’s relatively common for students to transition, detransition, and transition again, especially in response to the identity shifts in their classmates. At one point, a single student’s decision to go with they/them pronouns set off a chain reaction that resulted in four more of her friends doing the same. It’s gotten so ridiculous that a neighboring teacher recommended weekly pronoun checks, just to avoid the outrage that inevitably comes with every “misgendering.”
This sort of obsessive fixation on gender is concerning enough, but the dynamic is hugely exacerbated by the administration’s willingness to outsource tedious work virtue signaling to student organizations – almost all of which are staffed entirely by the wokest of the woke. As a result, gender theory inevitably seeps into every last corner of the entire school experience. A quick example: Last March, our principal thought it would be fun to have some students from the feminism club do a short Women’s History Month profile at the end of each day’s morning announcements. How many of the thirteen women they decided to cover were transgender, would you guess? One? Maybe two?
Nope! Seven of the thirteen women who received shout-outs for Women’s History Month were actually men. Some of the usual suspects showed up, of course; we got Rachel Levine and Christine Jorgensen, along with a double dose of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. But the list also included such trailblazing luminaries as Alok Vaid-Menon, who doesn’t even identify as a woman in the first place, and Laverne Cox, whose major accomplishment was a supporting role in a mediocre Netflix series. At least students had the good sense to include Sappho, where she was described as a “queer poet” whose poetry focused on a love for “women and femmes.”
I don’t bring up this example so I can make fun of the teenage girls who run our school’s feminism club – God knows how embarrassing the daily announcements would have been if they’d let me do them in high school. I bring it up to show just how dysfunctional the relationship is between gender-obsessed students and apathetic administrators. After all, if our principal had to make her own list for Women’s History Month, would it be anywhere near as crazy? Of course not. You’d have Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, and maybe one token transgender activist she heard about on NPR. But when a list of notable women is plopped down on her desk and fewer than half are even women at all, there’s no chance in Hell she’d consider pushing back – which leads me to my next point…
No, most people who work in schools aren’t true believers or undercover TERFs.
I landed my first teaching job at a very prestigious private school in one of my city’s wealthy liberal neighborhoods, the kind where every house has a Black Lives Matter sign sitting next to the floodlights they installed so homeless people will stop rummaging through their trash. Having spent the previous few years listening to TERFs, I’d been trained to expect an administration and faculty universally comprised of gender zealots. The reality was very different; rather than facing a woke inquisition the moment I stepped through the door, all I found was a big group of liberal normies who really didn’t care one way or the other.
Don’t get me wrong here – were there some faculty members who hung up pride flags, wore shirts that said Protect Trans Children and flaunted they/them pronouns of their own? Sure, one or two, and they’re the ones with TikTok accounts. But the rest of us were too busy trying to get our kids’ test scores up in between hunting down missing calculators and erasing all the penises they draw on the white boards. And now that I work in a public school, the dynamic is pretty much the same. Nine times out of ten, teachers just don’t care.
Even in my ultra-liberal district, I have plenty of conversations with colleagues where we all roll our eyes at the constant pronoun juggling or whine about having to slog through sensitivity trainings; the idea that anyone who doesn’t bow down to the idol of gender theory risks losing their job is just inaccurate. But that doesn’t mean the schools are full of people who secretly hate the orthodoxy either. They’re just normal people – when it comes to students who medically transition, they trust the doctors who say it’s necessary, and they see all the other stuff as a bunch of overexcited kids playing around with dumb but ultimately harmless trends.
To them, a girl deciding she’s non-binary isn’t some radical blow against the white cisheteropatriarchy or a terrible result of brainwashing by a woman-hating society. They think it’s just something stupid that teenagers do, like going goth or dabbling in Buddhism. A lot of TERFs don’t seem to realize this, and I don’t blame them – it’s hard to understand how anyone could just shrug their shoulders at this stuff. But shrug they do, and we’re not going to make any progress so long as we assume some secret TERF contingent is waiting in the wings to be activated by the right combination of talking points. If someone hasn’t realized what’s going on by now, they must really be trying to not pay attention. Especially since…
Yes, it’s obviously sexist nonsense.
Earlier, I mentioned a colleague who suggested I send out weekly pronoun checks to avoid accidental misgendering. This was actually only half of her helpful suggestion – the second half was that I should also send one out whenever I notice a female student cut her hair short or stop wearing dresses. I know, I know, that sounds like something out of a TERF fantasy. But I swear it’s true. In fact, I later learned that our school’s “transgender awareness” guide explicitly gives the same advice, along with a similar suggestion for male students who show up to class with nail polish. And to think teachers complain about not receiving enough practical guidance on these issues!
Now, on one hand, I want to criticize administrators for building policy around such obvious sexist stereotypes. But on some level, I can’t blame them – nine times out of ten, any girl who gets a “boyish” haircut does follow it up with a pronoun change. Across all the classes I had last year, I can only remember two or three female students who swore off femininity while still identifying as girls; the rest quickly identified as non-binary or started actively transitioning. Boys have a little more wiggle room – the straight guy who thinks it’s really cool to wear eyeliner is still a thing, I regret to inform you – but even then, I would say a good 75% of the gender non-conforming male students are similarly claiming to not really be boys.
There’s a lot about gender theory that I have problems with, but this in particular is what makes me really furious. Every one of my colleagues, if asked, would immediately say that gender stereotypes were harmful bullshit – yet they’ve created (or at least encouraged) a sorting system where “girl” is the category for feminine children, “boy” is the category for masculine children, and anyone who even comes close to the edges of either gets plucked out and relabeled non-binary. It breaks my heart to think these students are growing up in such a rigid, self-policing culture, where the gendered expectations I thought we’d put behind us now structure their basic sense of self. When I was their age, my school had a fair share of bullies who would taunt girls with short hair by saying they must really be boys – but at least the school administrators back then didn’t agree!
So yes, TERFs are absolutely right to say that gender theory and gender stereotypes are inseparable, and that the pressure is coming down hardest on gender non-conforming kids. But you have to be careful here, because…
No, it’s not about young gays and lesbians – at least not in the way you think.
When I first entered the gender debate about ten years ago, the entire concept of childhood transition was barely on the radar. It wasn’t until a few years later – especially with the debut of TLC’s I Am Jazz in 2015 – that you started to see the focus of the debate shift from adults to children. But when TERFs did notice that referrals to gender clinics were slowly starting to rise, most of them immediately interpreted it as a form of modern-day conversion therapy. Homophobic parents, so the story goes, where turning their gay sons into straight daughters and lesbian daughters into straight sons.
At the time, that was probably an accurate assessment. When the first wave of detransitioners emerged in the middle of the 2010’s, it was made up almost entirely of young gays and lesbians. I don’t consider myself part of that wave – although I spent my high school years identifying as various flavors of transgender too, I was lucky enough to grow up in a region where access to any real medical intervention was pretty much impossible – but I would still say my own attraction to gender theory was also intimately wrapped up with my own sexuality and the pressures I felt from the conservative community I found myself in. Back then, there just wasn’t much of a reason for straight kids to find transition appealing, whereas there was a certain type of LGB kid for whom it made sense in a twisted way.
But things have changed a lot in the years since gender theory began exploding into popular culture, and the narratives that previously made sense are rapidly becoming irrelevant. In my two and half years teaching in this district, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gay or lesbian student transition to better “fit in” with heterosexuality. Nowadays, gay and lesbian teenagers mainly live their lives as, well, gay and lesbian teenagers – it’s the socially awkward heterosexuals who flock around them, desperate for a “marginalized identity” of their own, that you need to be worrying about.
In other words: It used to be that childhood transition was a way for gay kids to make themselves straight, but now it’s primarily a way for straight kids to make themselves gay. And why wouldn’t they? In these internet-poisoned youth subcultures, being a boring straight kid (especially a boring straight girl!) puts you at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, a totally acceptable target for barely-concealed contempt and passive bullying. I had a group of queer students who ate lunch by my desk every day, and every other joke they made was about the one “token heterosexual” who liked to hang out with them. Of course, she was non-binary too by the end of the year – you can only take peers “punching up” at you for so long before you’d want to join them on their level.
This, more than anywhere else, is where common TERF arguments break down. It’s not that modern gender theory isn’t homophobic. It is, undoubtedly. But it’s homophobic less in the sense that it represses homosexuality and more that it elevates it to a sort of in-demand cultural signifier, wildly disconnected from any actual same-sex desire. Ironically, the TERF impulse to immediately center gay and lesbian youth in these talking points is part of the problem – most of these children are transitioning precisely because they want to roleplay as an oppressed minority, and the assumption that every social ill must always have a unique impact on LGB people in particular just feeds that obsession. If you really want to stop children from transitioning, you better start saying it’s for boring straight kids, not gay ones!
As I wrap up, let me just say: I don’t want anyone who reads this piece to think TERFs are only “half right,” just because I’m pointing out some places where their analysis goes wrong. On everything that actually matters, they’re the only ones out there today consistently capturing the reality I see on the ground. It’s just that they noticed what was going on before anyone else did, back when all this nonsense was strictly the domain of a few fanatics and its primary victims were gay and lesbian kids; it’s no surprise that some of their talking points are in need of an update in 2022, now that gender theory is a full-blown social phenomenon. But their fundamental analysis still captures something essential that snappier criticisms from conservatives and centrists often miss.
You can’t understand gender theory today unless you understand teenage girls today – and like it or not, you can’t understand teenage girls today if you’re tuning out the feminists who have been ringing alarm bells for decades now. So go find some TERFs and really listen to what they have to say, as long as you remember that the situation is changing rapidly and not everything that was right on the money years ago is perfectly accurate now. As for me, I’ve got about fifteen more sensitivity trainings to wrap up.